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Higher than Normal Call Volumes on Revelation Road: notes from pilgrimage in uneasy times

(This blog series focuses on pilgrimage through the counting of the Omer, marking the seven-week passage from the Jewish holidays of Passover to Shavuot, in which one works each week with different traits both human and Divine. You’ll find more context in the first post in this series. Also, please excuse the Omer-to-blog lag; this exploration of netzach, or endurance and eternity, covers the period April 30-May 8. I think it would be fair to say, though, that there’s no expiration date for the matters at hand.)

It’s going to be different this time.  I’m sure of it.

And it’s about time, too.

If you’re bored one day, and think seeing the lesser angel of my nature might be entertaining, check me out when I put in a call to customer service at my cable and internet provider.  Even before the call is made, I’m bracing for endless prompts and “then press pounds,” until at last I’m finally told to hit zero if my call “is about something else.”

My calls always seem to be about something else.

While waiting for the customer service representative who will draw the short straw and be forced to attend to me, I not infrequently get into a spat with the recorded messages.

“We are currently experiencing higher than normal call volumes.”

“That’s what you said the last time, and the time before that.  How about staffing up for your new normal?”

“Your call is very important to us – ”

“Oh, I know.  You’d be bereft without me.”

“- and we appreciate your patience.”

“Don’t give me too much credit.”

If the unfortunate rep who gets me asks a little too sweetly how I’m doing today, they’re likely to be met with “I’m fine” in an icily cool tone, the subtext of which is “I’m done, so let’s not bother with pleasantries.”  And they’re certainly not asked how they’re doing.  Once I’ve explained my issue, when they repeat it back, whoa are they if I have to correct them – especially if they began the call by saying they could certainly fix my problem.  My words may be civil, but they come slowly and reluctantly, as if I don’t know how much longer I can suffer this conversation.

No, not me at my best.

Hopefully, somewhere along the way – early in the call, ideally – I catch myself, and make adjustments, remembering the rep is forced to speak from a script under the watchful ear of a supervisor while dealing with many a crappy customer, and I summon my more pleasant, cooperative self.  Too often, though, the call ends with my having made the rep’s life less pleasant than it needs to be.  Maybe I regret it soon after the fact; but by then, there’s nothing to be done.

But something is going on these days.

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We are now in the fourth week of the counting of the omer, the week of netzach, commonly translated as endurance and eternity.  The week of pushing through on the journey from the constriction of slavery to revelation.

Netzach seems an invitation to ask, “How am I enduring these difficult times?  And what from these troublesome days might I like to see survive into the better days that will come?”

Among other things, my newly acquired habit of taking the stairs instead of the elevator comes to mind.  As does the opportunity I’ve taken advantage of to give daily attention to the same group of trees from my balcony, and watch their day-to-day transition.

But what would I like to see endure that benefits more than me?

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I am seated on the meditation cushion, doing Buddhist metta or loving-kindness practice.  Typically, the practice begins with extending good wishes to oneself – for instance, silently saying, “May I be safe.  May I be happy.  May I be healthy.  May I live with ease.”  And from there, those wishes are extended concentrically outward, such as to a being from whom we’ve experienced unconditional love, other loved ones, those about whom our feelings our neutral, people we find difficult, and finally, all beings.

When I was first introduced to the practice, I confided resistance to one of my teachers.  How would others, I asked, benefit from my silently and stealthily wishing them well?  “You may not change them,” he said, “but you’re going to change yourself.”

And he was right.  I wasn’t long into the practice before I saw that it helped me more easily and consistently access patience and compassion for myself and others. Even if cable company reps are too frequently given cause for skepticism.

Lately, something has changed when I do metta.

When I get to the juncture where I’m to wish safety, happiness, good health and ease to a person about whom my feelings are neutral, I can’t come up with anyone.  Visualizing others I’ve only glancingly encountered, my feelings are anything but neutral.  It’s clearer than ever that they’re carrying the same burdens as me, and why it is they should be wished safety and good health. Though I don’t know them, I know enough that I’m feeling too much compassion to have only neutral feelings about them.

Then, when I try to bring someone to mind who I find difficult, I’m similarly challenged.  Maybe out on the street and in the ravine, my judgement and ire are triggered by those who are less heedful of physical distancing than they should be, but here on the cushion, it’s a struggle to remember what they look like, and to think of them as difficult.  They, like me, are just trying to manage their way through a time none of us are equipped to handle.  So most times, I settle for people I’ve found difficult in the past, but towards whom I feel kindness now.

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Even before I pick up the phone to call the cable company, I can feel the difference in my body.  I start to brace myself for the menu options and pound keys, and discover I lack umbrage.  And the small degree of resentment I’ve managed to marshal dissipates entirely when I get a new recording informing me that the long wait times I can expect have to do with prioritizing customers in need of emergency services.  While I wait, I think about the economic fallout from these days, and what it means for the job security of the rep with whom I’ll be speaking.

So when I finally get through, and am required to speak to multiple people, and given multiple answers to my one question, I recognize this for the small stuff it is.  I still don’t ask the reps how they’re doing, but it’s not because I don’t care.  It’s because my instincts tell me they’re too busy to get into it, and also, I fear that their script will require them to answer “fine, thank you,” even though that’s likely not true.  But I’m hoping that the cooperative and friendly tone which is coming from me is just as good.

“I see friends shaking hands,” Louis Armstrong once sang for us, “saying ‘how do you do?’  They’re really saying, I love you.”

When the call ends, maybe my better angel has shown up and I’ve made the lives of people who are required to serve me a little better than they would have been otherwise.

It’s not that this has never happened before, but it seems to be coming more easily right now.

And so, let conduct of this kind be my way of enduring these times.

And also, let it be something more.

I don’t think my teacher was entirely correct in saying that metta would only change me.  Because the greater my capacity to connect with patience and compassion, the better I make the lives of everyone I encounter, and by extension, the lives of all they encounter, and so on, l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation.

Let this be the netzach, the eternity, that comes of these times.

It doesn’t seem like a stretch to say, you and me both, we’ve got this.

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Bonus Feature: someone else’s reflections

In anticipation of writing this post, I invited others to convey how netzach – endurance and eternity – has played out for them.  And with that, it’s my pleasure to share the following reflections from David Orenstein

My Omer Netzach

David Orenstein

Like many of us, daily walks are an expression of Netzach during this shutdown pandemic Omer.

Early in the shutdown, I decided that I would take an early morning walk, in my Riverdale neighbourhood, first thing every day. That is first thing after I feed the cats, bring in the Globe and the Star, maybe check for the Moon, planets and stars, perform my morning ablutions and get dressed. Getting home from the walk I make breakfast for our household.

Back in mid-March, the weather was not always pleasant but I was determined.  But in addition to the push of improving my health and maintaining a regular schedule, was soon added the pull of the pleasure of moving my body and the scenic local parks, gardens and architecture.

By now these walks are the best part of my day. As I write, in early May, there are daily changes in the flowers and trees. I’ve worked out quite a variety of interesting return trips. Also I can meet friends and neighbours for short, safely distanced schmooze sessions.

This evokes an earlier period in my life when endurance in walking paid off. Many years before I retired from teaching and was still working, I was feeling perpetually exhausted and emotionally drained.  Not only was I teaching my classes with a total of up to 180 students, but I had the heavy commitment of being a member of the local union executive for the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation in Toronto, along with political commitments and involvement with scholarship, culture and a social life.

So I decided to start my day with a twenty minute walk, on a slight uphill grade, to the Christie subway station. This project also started in challenging March weather. Luckily as my willpower and determination wore off the more clement weather and the burgeoning neighbourhood gardens made this early trek a positive pleasure.

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Your turn…

What about you? What enables you to endure this juncture of our path? What would you like to see endure beyond these times? Any thoughts about how to bring it about?

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Horses and horses and ducks (oh, my) on Revelation Road: notes from pilgrimage in uneasy times

(This blog series focuses on pilgrimage through the counting of the Omer, marking the seven-week passage from the Jewish holidays of Passover to Shavuot, in which one works each week with different traits both human and Divine. You’ll find more context in the first post in this series. Also, please excuse the Omer-to-blog lag; this exploration of tiferet, or balance, covers the period April 23-30. I think it would be fair to say, though, that there’s no expiration date for the matters at hand.)

I’ve been perched a while on my secluded rock in the ravine, spending time amidst water, wind, trees, light.

Suddenly, a frantic flapping of wings – a couple of ducks putting on reverse thrusters as they land with a splash in the stream beside me.

I think about going for my camera, but don’t want to make any sudden moves, as I’ve decided I’m the Jane Goodall of omer-counters, a quiet presence around whom the wildlife feel unthreatened.  (Or maybe the urban experience of these waterfowl is such that they’re accustomed and unfrightened by humans, but since this is not my preferred thought, I go back to being Goodall.) 

After a short while, one of them, the more colourful, coasts over closer to me, concentric circles emanating outwards.

“Beautiful,” I think.  “Now, the camera.”

Tiferet, though, has me pause a moment.

In this third week of the counting of the omer, the overarching trait with which one works is tiferet, variously translated as splendour, truth, and balance.  One way in which balance comes into the picture is to find the right proportion of the first two week’s practices – how much open-hearted, chesed (loving-kindness) to extend, and how much gevurah (boundary-making) to employ. 

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Winter 2007 – I’m aboard the Southwest Chief, the train that runs from Los Angeles to Chicago.  I’ve been travelling in stages, and got on about a half hour ago in Raton, New Mexico. 

As always, I’d headed to the viewing car and its floor-to-ceiling windows. 

As we pass through grazing and ranch land, I hear a gasp and a “wow!” from the other side.  I stand up to see a horse galloping alongside the train, its combination of grace and speed providing a thrill of a kind I’ve never known.  I reach back to my seat, grab my camera, take off the lens cover, and turn back. 

The horse is gone. 

I will think often of this moment, regretting that I tried to capture rather than live it.

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Spring 2017 – I am following the arrows, walking the Camino Portuges, the pilgrimage route that runs from Portugal to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. 

I’ve chosen the coastal route, carrying my backpack from village-to-village, the Atlantic Ocean on my left, waves crashing against rocks, locals calling out, “Buen Camino!” 

Somewhere between Matosinhos and Vila Cha I spot a group of young equestrians.  Still on their mounts, most are watching a trio of classmates at the far end of the beach.  Suddenly, their horses are in motion, kicking up sand, hooves a blur of speed.  As they get closer, I think of my camera.  And then, I think of the Southwest Chief, and leave the camera alone so I can simply enjoy the gift of watching them race past, the horses beating out thunder on the ground, the blue-green ocean for a backdrop. 

The trio come to a stop and turn around.  For another charge along the shore?  “Okay,” I tell myself.  “The camera can come out.  But set it up so that if the moment comes, you’re not experiencing it through a viewfinder.”  The moment does come. 

The picture I take is slightly out of focus. The delight of the moment is not.

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In the ravine, I think of chesed as the voice that says, “Yes, take the picture.  Capture the moment.  Keep it for yourself, share and show it off to others.”  While gevurah says, “Not so fast.  These moments come once.  Try to capture them and they’re gone; don’t participate from the sidelines.” 

When the duck drifts my way, tiferet lets chesed and gevurah have their say, then finds a middle path, just as it did on the Camino.  First, be here, in case here goes away.  Breathe in this gift, and breathe it in again.  And then, if it lasts, get out your camera and click.  Unlike the Camino, though, this time my subject is slow-moving, and I could take dozens of pictures till I get the perfect shot.

Gevurah says, “Remember.  You’re Goodall.  Not Ansel Adams.”

Even chesed has me let go of the camera, saying, “Listen to your body.  Your body doesn’t want to work that hard.  It just wants to be here.”

Sometimes, I guess, tiferet has to negotiate between chesed and gevurah, and other times it lets them find their own path to the same destination.

So a couple more pics, and the technology is put aside.  I hang out with the ducks for some time, until a rambunctious golden retriever charges into the water and sends them flapping away.

And with tiferet’s assistance, I am full, still enjoying this opportunity to breath easy.

Your turn…

How about you? What’s your experience of late or of life in finding that sweet spot where tiferet finds harmony between chesed or loving-kindness and gevurah or boundary-making? Or how have you witnessed it in others? Got advice or insights you would care to offer?

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Looking for Love on Revelation Road: notes from pilgrimage in uneasy times

(As with my previous series on the Jewish Morning Blessings, or Birkot HaShachar, it’s my hope that the spiritual reportage and practices I describe in this new set of posts will be of value to you whether you’re Jewish or not, a believer, atheist or agnostic, as we navigate these unsettling times.  As you’ll see, there’s an invitation at the end to offer your own insights and experience. I’d be delighted if you did.)

As I descend into the ravine, I discover that my side of the path is covered with mud and a runner is approaching.  A matter so benign, I’d have given it no attention a month ago.  But now, of course, everything is different.

The calculations begin.

Maybe I should keep going straight, and resign myself to mud-slopped feet.  Or maybe I can angle slightly towards the runner, and in the way others seem to have, tell myself that where six feet of distance isn’t feasible, four is good enough.

Or maybe there’s another option.  Maybe I can act from a place of chesed [to hear the word pronounce, listen to Warlax’s version here], or loving-kindness, not yet knowing of the reward that awaits, the tears that will come, and how much I yearn for them.

And maybe what I’m exploring will also hold value for you, regardless of your religion or spiritual practice or absence of either, in this upside-down, sideways-spinning time.

But first, a little – and not too much, I promise – theology.  And then it’s back to the runner and my tears.

By the Jewish calendar, we are now in the early stages of the counting of the Omer, a seven-week process in which one numbers off each day between the Jewish pilgrimage festivals of Passover and Shavuot, a passage taking one from the constriction of slavery in Egypt through the expansiveness of freedom, and ultimately to the revelation of Torah (or “teaching”) at Mount Sinai.

Somewhere in the 16th or 17th centuries, Jewish mystics, or Kabbalists, mapped the counting of the Omer to their schema for God, who they understood to possess ten key attributes, the “lower” seven of which mirror more human qualities. They assigned each of these characteristics to one of the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot,* so that people could give attention to them, and cultivate those qualities within themselves.

It’s a practice that continues today, and one I’ve done in the past.  But we’re in a new world now, and I wonder what it will be like this year to move from Passover to Shavuot, giving attention to each of these attributes, and discover what will be revealed at the end of Revelation Road.

To be sure, I approach this pilgrimage from a place of privilege.  Neither I nor those I love have to this point been felled by the pandemic.  I’m still earning a paycheque, and able to work from the comfort of home rather than by tending to the visibly ill or by bagging groceries for asymptomatic carriers. But even the privileged are suffering.  Suffering from fear for the world’s future and the safety of the most vulnerable.  Suffering from deprivation of the physical company we crave, and missing the activities that enliven us most, not knowing how or when they will be part of our lives again.  And maybe most of all, we are suffering from having the curtain pulled from behind the illusion that we know what tomorrow holds.

The quality assigned to the first week of the Omer, laying the groundwork for all the weeks to follow, is chesed, variously translated as loving-kindness, loving connection, and generosity.

So when I step outside for a walk, I decide to give chesed attention as best I’m able – whether I’m its source, its recipient, or simply its witness.

I do so, reluctantly accepting it will be without the long stretches of green space for which I yearn.  But the beautifully landscaped cemetery near my home has been closed because of insufficient physical distancing.  And though it helps that there’s a small park nearby where I now go for perambulations through its cluster of trees and the fallow outfield grass of a baseball diamond, I’m yearning for a good, long amble.  So I settle for more of an urban walk, stepping into the zig-zag flow of people getting away from one another.  Except for those who don’t.  “What part of six feet don’t you understand?” I want to chide them, chesed eluding me. 

The sun.

Sunlight is slanting onto the street between buildings, its rays offering warmth to my bones that I hadn’t realized they craved. Chesed to the weary.  And a compass by which to direct myself.  Any road I can walk down that directs me to the sun without my having to be on top of other people is the road I want.

Soon, surprisingly soon, the sun delivers me – could it be? – to a pathway into a ravine.

“Don’t mess with me now,” I think.

When the cemetery closed, I thought of taking recourse to the nearby ravines, but the only way in that came to mind were long stairwells only four feet wide or so.  I tried making the case as to why that would be okay – I could turn my back to others if we got close, other people were surely using them, too – but every reason I came up with felt like a justification for my pleasure being more important than others’ well-being, and so I accepted that the ravines would have to wait.

But now, having discovered this pathway, I place one foot after the other and take its measure.  Eleven and a half shoe lengths wide.  Almost ten feet.  If I keep to my side and they keep to theirs, we’re in business.

Suddenly, I’m amidst tall trees and bare branches just starting to bud, carpets of discarded leaves, occasional evergreens a shining contrast to the brown of early spring. 

But as I descend, I discover that that my side of the path is mudded over, and a runner is approaching.

And so, quick calculation.  Do I walk into the mud?  Do I angle slightly in the runner’s direction?  I opt instead for something radical. 

I stop. 

No striving or striding.  I just slide over as far as I can to the side, and stop. 

The intention is to ensure, as best I can, her well-being and mine, and that of everyone we meet.  I can’t say that it’s chesed that’s governed this decision; stepping aside and stopping is something I’ve been doing since before the counting of the Omer.  But it’s helpful to note all the same that the distance I and others have been giving one another these past several weeks is absolutely an act of love.  And even more helpful is the act of stopping, because here, at the side of this path, in this stillness, I really am where I am, tuning in to the trills and tropes of birdsong from either side, the cool of the breeze, the low-grade heat from the sun, its light glistening and giving texture to the ruts in the mud.  We are only now migrating out of the “ugly” parts of the spring, and every bit of this is a blessing.

The runner has passed and I could continue along.  But having stopped, I’ve spotted a slab of rock down by the stream, and it’s clear that that’s exactly where I want to be.  It’s a sharp descent, but falling towards a couple of trees and grabbing their trunks keeps me from tumbling into the muck. I work my way to the rock surrounded by mud and water, perching where no one can approach.  It’s almost too beautiful to bear; the shimmering waters at my feet turning the reflection of the trees into impressionist art, the rippling waters ahead and the swirling waters behind curving downstream, the patch of green on the other bank hinting at the ripening of spring, the soothing and continuous sounds of water pouring into the stream, the tableau of bare, brown trees. 

I could cry.  So I do.

This, too, is chesed.  A reassurance that it will be alright.  An absurd thought almost, and one I would never impose on those enduring physical suffering or loss.  But I am sitting in eternity right now, and know that whatever becomes of it all, it will be alright.  The words ahava rabah ahavtanu come to mind.  From one of Judaism’s central prayers.  With a great love, You love us.

Because my need for chesed is irrefutably insatiable at this time, I have returned to the rock four days running.  A couple of days ago, I spotted an improvised footbridge running across the stream, the sight of which would normally have lifted my spirits, but in these fearful days, generates a war plan instead we have to knock that thing down before somebody comes from the other side!  More spiritual work to do, more chesed to access.  But that’s nothing new; I already knew I was a work in progress.

Each day I perch on the rock, take in the waters, tear up, get bored, make myself stay, fall in love with nature again, get bored, stay some more.  At the fifteen-minute mark, I wonder how much longer I need to stay.  At eighteen minutes, I wonder where the time went.

And each and every day, my walk to and from the rock has allowed me to extend, receive or simply witness chesed

I witnessed it when I noticed that the photo lab I pass on the way has three large and bright signs out, saying “We’re all in this together!”

I received it when physical distancing took me into the road, only realizing once I was back on the sidewalk that I had been trailed by a driver, the sound of whose car had been muffled by fierce winds.  Rather than honk me aside, she had simply slowed down until I was out of harm’s way.

And I offered it when I noticed the homeless guy on the street corner.  He’s surprisingly cheerful, singing with what might be a well-trained voice, and holding a weathered cardboard cup.  I don’t want to get close to him. What I do want is an exemption from loving-kindness.  After all, didn’t I make a donation just last week to Ve’ahavta, the not-for-profit that serves the city’s street people?  I know.  I’ll tell him to walk all the way downtown so they can look after him.  But there’s an alternative that he can actually put to use. “I’m keeping my distance from people,” I call to him, as I pull the only kind of cash I’ve got, an American twenty, out my wallet, “but I’m putting this down here for you.”  As I anchor the bill below a construction pylon, he tells me, now that everything’s sinking in, he’s becoming fearful that even the very coffee cup he’s holding could be a danger to him.  “Be safe, pal,” I say.  “Yeah, you too!” he says.

And I’ve shared chesed, too, enjoying the benefit of the connection it engenders, as I do the dance with a neighbour I’ve never met before. As we get closer, I win the race to the road by a millisecond, so he gets the high ground of the sidewalk.  “It’s better that way,” he says.  “You’ll see the car that’s about to hit you.  I’d only hear it.”

Entering my building, the door won’t open.  I tug at it twice, then thrice.  The fob isn’t working, but the key does.  The maintenance woman inside has words for me.  “Don’t be banging on the door like that!” she shouts.  “If it’s not working, you’re only making it worse!”  “Fair enough,” I say, though I resent being shouted at.  Scowling, she makes room for me, and I pass.  Chugging up the stairs, my resentment in tow, I think about how stressful her job and the rest of her life might be, and I do Buddhist metta or loving-kindness practice, wishing her safety, happiness, good health, and ease. When I do this for people who I find difficult, the thought they might have to endure ill-health changes everything.  By the time I reach my apartment and catch my breath, my resentment is gone.

It could come back, of course.  As could any of a number of other grievances with the world.

Which is why regularly topping up on chesed seems like a good idea right about now.

* they also assigned one of the attributes to each of the seven days within the week, but that’s not a part of the practice on which I’ll be focusing in this series

Sneak preview: beginning Thursday night, April 16, the attribute we’ll be working with is gevurah, variously translated as strength, judgment, discernment, and discipline. But keep your attention on chesed as long as you wish. The world can always use more loving-kindness.

Your turn…

Now how about you? Have you experienced chesed (loving-kindness, loving connection, generosity) in these trying times? In what ways have you received, offered or witnessed it? Is there advice you would care to offer to others about how to access it? Any thoughts on your mind are welcome below.

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